Written by Andy Wood
So Southampton have made their bow in the 2016-17 Europa League, and in the end it was as good a night as they could have hoped for, winning 3-0 against Czech opposition Sparta Prague. Let’s get straight into some reflection on the night’s events…
Obviously the atmosphere was going to be electric on a night like this, and matches under the floodlights are a special occasion. The fans looked to get into this match early to take it all in and the stage definitely looked set to stage a historic night. Claude Puel opted to make a number of changes for this match – disappointing perhaps for fans who’d have wanted to see the strongest team play such an event. That being said with lots of matches coming up the manager had good reason for resting certain players. I was only really disappointed by one omission – Jose Fonte surely deserved to be leading the team out on a night like this. Overall the mood around the stadium was as positive as you would expect, with plenty of noise around the stadium and the teams walking out to a rocking ovation.
Getting off to a good start is always key in football but even more so to keep the atmosphere’s momentum going. Southampton settled in to an early rhythm of monopolising possession amongst the defensive players, waiting patiently to involve the forwards.
When the first goal came it was probably not quite the way anyone expected or really would have wanted. The referee’s decision to award a penalty took the whole ground by surprise. A huge roar had gone up behind the goal calling for handball but initially it was waved away. With everyone well prepared for a corner, the referee then bizarrely changed his mind and blew up again to point to the spot. What followed were more extraordinary scenes with Charlie Austin and Dusan Tadic getting into a heated argument over who should take the penalty, resulting in captain Virgil Van Dijk having to physically move Tadic away from the scene. Thankfully, Austin converted the kick and the mood immediately lifted again around the stadium.
From then on the pattern of the match reverted to normal, with Southampton controlling the tempo with calm passing across the defence and midfield. Sparta Prague struggled to make an impression going forward, only succeeding in getting into the Saint’s penalty area on a couple of occasions, with the back line comfortably dealing with any threats. Chances were few and far between but in the end Southampton were able to double their lead for a comfortable looking scoreline. Charlie Austin was looking hungry to make an impact and will have been frustrated to have a good low header ruled out for offside. Only a few minutes later though he was able to get on the end of a back post cross to head across goal and get his second of the game. Van Dijk also headed just over the bar in an assured half.
Nothing too much changed in the second half, with Southampton continuing to have the most of the game. Sparta threatened more, and Fraser Forster was forced into an impressive low save from a driven effort. Overall there weren’t many memorable opportunities despite some good build up play. Nathan Redmond was particularly impressive on as a substitute, his skill and creativity being at the heart of some of the best play. Jay Rodriguez also came off the bench to score a late third goal after a very nice team move.
Fraser Forster- 7
Cuco Martina- 7
Maya Yoshida- 6
Virgil Van Dijk- 8
Matt Targett- 6
Oriel Romeu- 7
Pierre Hojbjerg- 7
James Ward-Prowse- 7
Dusan Tadic- 6
Shane Long- 6
Charlie Austin- 8
How Are Things Looking?
I said before the game that this match would between the two teams fighting for second place in the group behind Inter Milan, a prediction that right now looks to have been turned on its head by Hapeol Beer Sheva’s impressive 2-0 win over the Italian giants. It’s a long trip to Israel next up…
Saints fans, what did you make of the performance? Are you confident of qualifying? Let us know in the comments below!